August 30, 2011

Bill Nye ’77: Engineer, Comedian and Cornellian

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On Saturday, Bill Nye ’77 gave a lecture and dedicated a new solar clock, embedded in the facade of Frank T. Rhodes Hall. The Sun had the opportunity to speak with Nye about his experiences at Cornell and beyond.The Sun: What were you involved with during your time at Cornell? Bill Nye: Well I played ultimate frisbee. As far as we know, I went to the first intercollegiate ultimate tournament. We were athletes trying to compete. I was, you know, generally an unremarkable student. I worked very hard. If I had any regrets, I’d say that I didn’t take enough time to appreciate how cool it is … I had these professor that were so influential  … My relationship to Cornell has enriched my life so much. Being a visiting professor… It’s just been wonderful.You look back with rose colored glasses, but it was a cool time and I’m so pleased.

The Sun: What did you study?B.N.: Mechanical Engineering.

The Sun: Did you have a favorite class? B.N.: The class that affected me the most may have been Control Systems with a professor named Richard Phelan. And Dick Phelan wrote a bunch of textbooks that are used widely and in other offices, other engineering companies. People use Richard Phelan’s books and didn’t know that I had him as a professor, which is pretty cool. I got a lot out of Machine Design; I got a lot out of Heat Transfer, Fluid Mechanics and Aeronautics … the guy who teaches fluids now –– Charles Williamson –– is an outstanding professor. He’s won professor of the year several times. I never had him for fluids, but I’ve learned a lot from him. Michel Louge was helping the students design the controller for the clock. I’ve learned a lot from him about combustion processes since I graduated.

The Sun: This is an interesting time because of what’s happening in the job market. You began at Boeing ­­–– how did that influence your career?B.N.: I worked on 747s, on flight controls. I’m pretty sure the reason I got the controls job was because I took a couple of courses in control systems. For normal people on the outside who live lives, control of heavy machinery has fallen to mechanical engineers because I think it dates back to steam engines …It was a cool job. The thing was, this guy said to me, “Hey do you want to work on the 767?” back in 1979 or 1980.  I said, “That sounds great.” Then I asked when the plane would fly. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “Well, 15 years.” When you’re a young guy –– you try to think, “Boy maybe I ought to do something else.” So I went to a shipyard because I wanted to work on the environment. It was a company that skimmed oil slips. The spill last year, the Deep[water] Horizon spill, I’m pretty sure those were the same boats we worked on in the 1980s.

The Sun: At what point did you start “being an engineer by day and comedian by night?”B. N.: When I was a senior, in fact I went by the house I lived in on Linden Avenue on Saturday and took a picture. The house is still there! The guy who had been my freshman roommate, Dave Laks, he lived in the house behind me, I guess the next street up is Dryden. He had this crazy new technology: cable television. He said, “You gotta see this.” It was video tape of Steve Martin at the Boarding House in San Francisco. He said, “Look at this, he looks like you.” So, then subsequently, for the next year Warner Brothers Records did a Steve Martin look alike contest. By then I had taken a job working at Boeing. So I entered the look-alike contest in Seattle –– and I won! I did not go on to win the national –– that guy kinda looked like Steve Martin! … But what I always liked to say –– I claim I understood what Steve Martin was driving at in a way that the other contestants just didn’t grasp …Anyway, then I went on to do stand up. People wanted me to do Steve Martin at parties, and that’s okay but that wasn’t my own material. So then I developed my own mediocre comedy act and worked as an engineer and a stand up comic for about five, six, seven years. I reached the level of middling as we say in comedy. There’s the MC, the middler and the headliner.  I never headlined but I middled. I got a lot of stage time and a lot of experience. Once in a while it’s just really fun, it’s the best thing ever. Other times you just want to blow your brains out. That’s the nature of it.

The Sun: What was your favorite thing about that?B.N.: I don’t know my favorite. The most important thing is probably getting a reaction out of people –– that  you believe you understand the human condition so well that you can get a reaction out of people. The most fun thing is that I think there’s certain jokes that are so funny I can’t wait to tell them, even if they’re not objectively funny.

The Sun: Do you think there’s a connection between how you’re drawn to engineering and enjoying comedy?B.N.: No. Yes! Of course. We remind everybody that –– despite stereotypes, we [engineers] make things! In general you make things to improve the quality of lives of people … When you tell comedy, you’re working to get people to feel good. And, ideally, you give them something to think about. I don’t think any accessible comedian doesn’t really have in the back in his subtext that he wants to give people. He wants people to stop and really question what they do everyday.

The Sun: I was wondering how you feel about science education in college?B.N.: From my experience, most of my college career was science. It’s very important for Cornellians –– I had a question on Saturday if I had trouble passing the swim test… It’s very important for students at Cornell to graduate with an appreciation for physical activity. I encourage students to do something interesting with their physical education requirement. I really worked on learning to ice skate backwards. I learned cross country skiing and karate. At one unusual party at a different college campus, I got into a fist fight, that amounted to nothing more than me blocking a single punch. Nothing happened ­­­–– I just blocked this guy’s punch because I took karate. And that was it! the fight was over. I digress … it’s important for Cornell students to have an appreciation for science and technology and how much it affects our every day world. By the way, that’s the idea, that’s back story with regard to the solar noon clock. You don’t have to become an astronomer. You don’t have to learn spherical geometry –– you just have to have an appreciation that the earth’s orbit is an odd shape … The sun is not a point of light, it’s a disk. All these things contribute to solar noon being not quite noon. And that is a remarkable thing. It’s remarkable in itself that all these things conspire to make time, and that we can understand it!The Sun: If you were to choose three science courses each student should take at Cornell, what would they be?Boy, I’m not an expert on that but I might say astronomy, geology and biology. I’m shooting from the hip here. Economics is important, everyone should be exposed to economics. Boy, I’d sure like it if every Cornellian could do calculus. That’s a good question. I don’t think every Cornellian needs to know electrical engineering … I had a terrific experience with my Shakespeare class, but I’m not sure everybody needs that. Oh! Psychology 101 is the greatest thing ever, with Jim Maas.

The Sun: Did you take Psych 101?B.N.: No. You know, people don’t regret what they do, they regret what they don’t do. In my sort of rebellious freshman time, I didn’t take that class. But I was affected by it, because everyone else took it. And that’s a regret. But we move on.

The Sun: At the lecture, you mentioned your father was especially into solar clocks. Did that kind of give you an interest in science from the start?Oh yeah, my father was very supportive of science. He showed me the moon through a telescope. He strongly encouraged me to build things, to make things all the time. My parents –– we had a fine upbringing. They kept me in bicycles. As I grew, I needed, or one would prefer to have a larger bike frame and they kept me in bicycles. I was on my bike this morning –– I rode 15 kilometers this morning, 3,000 vertical feet. I still do it. My love of bicycles and airplanes really led me to be a mechanical engineer … the motion still has my heart. The moving parts are still what I really like.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou